‘Smokers need not apply’ policies go a step too far

Hiring bans reach into private lives


Baylor Health Care System, one of the Dallas area’s largest employers, has taken several savvy steps in its fight against smoking. It has offered free smokingces­sation programs to workers, made its campus smoke-free and slapped a health insurance surcharge on employees who smoke.

But on Jan. 1, Baylor went a step too far: It stopped hiring anyone who smokes at work — or anywhere else. Treating smoking, in essence, like illegal drug use takes Baylor and an increasing number of other employers down a dangerous road, one that extends far too deeply into the private lives of prospectiv­e workers.

Baylor says that as a health care organizati­on, it wants to practice what it preaches: discouragi­ng one of the nation’s deadliest health habits. But such practices are not confined to the health care industry, and they raise a broader issue: If employers routinely reject people who engage in risky, but legal, behavior on their own time, what about such things as overeating or drinking too much alcohol? If smoker bans reduce health care expenses, cost-conscious employers might be tempted to stake out new and even more intrusive territory under the “wellness program” banner. A bit further down the road lies hiring based on genetics. In that world, inheriting a gene that shows a predisposi­tion to a costly disease could cost you a job.

A decade ago, bans on hiring smokers were rare. A few companies — including Alaska Airlines, Turner Broadcasti­ng, Florida’s Gulf Power and some law enforcemen­t agencies — were among the early adopters. The trend led 29 states to pass laws protecting smokers from what lawmakers saw as work- place discrimina­tion.

While no one keeps count, the practice appears to be spreading in the other 21 states. At Weyco Inc., a Michigan medical-benefits administra­tor, four employees quit when they refused to submit to the company’s no-smoker policy. Since 2007, the Cleveland Clinic — which has 40,000 employees and hires 5,000 a year — hasn't hired anyone who tests positive for nicotine. Starting this Wednesday, Pennsylvan­ia’s Geisinger Health System, which has 15,000 employees, won’t hire smokers.

At least health care providers can assert that the bans are related to their medical missions. But what about other companies? Scotts Co., which makes lawn and garden supplies, made headlines in 2006 when it was sued by a new hire who was fired after testing positive for nicotine; Scotts’ policy was upheld by a federal court in Boston. Atlanta-based Georgia Power stopped hiring smokers in 2009.

Even the Hollywood Casino in Toledo, Ohio, set to open this year, tells smokers they need not apply for employment. This means House Speaker John Boehner, a smoker who is second in line to the presidency, couldn’t get a job at a casino in his home state.

In a nation where 55% of workers get their insurance through their employers, and where employers’ insurance costs have more than doubled in just a decade, companies have ample reason to cut costs and keep employees healthy. They also deserve great latitude in hiring, which makes legislatio­n problemati­c. But intruding this deeply into people’s private lives raises questions that bear scrutiny.

Companies can charge smokers more for health coverage or ban smoking on the job. But punishing people for using a legal product on their own time crosses a troubling line.

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